Yep, big times.
All week, folks have been posting “first day of school” pictures of their kids on Facebook and Instagram. Sparkly new backpacks, squeaky new shoes, tentatively forced smiles – I’ve seen them all week of kids of all ages. (By the way, major props to those friends of ours who actually got their high school kids to pose for these pictures. I’m slow-clapping for you right now.) We have one, too.
When I ask my child how she’s feeling about starting at a new school, she tells me she’s jealous. The first conversation we have is that the word she means is “nervous” and that “jealous” means when you want what someone else has. Then the second conversation we have is what she is feeling nervous about. She usually says some variant of a) it’s all new and b) she doesn’t know what her teacher will be like. Makes sense to me, I tell her. Heck, I think kids get nervous at the start of every year of every level of education for wondering what their teachers will be like. It’s okay to be nervous, I tell her. Were you nervous when you started school? she asked. I sure was, I say.
What I’m not telling her is that I’m nervous now. Seriously, I have no idea what’s going on. When I went to kindergarten, life seemed pretty simple and straightforward. I was nervous about making friends and what my teacher would be like, but I don’t remember my parents having to deal with all the things that we’re having to deal with just to get our child into a school. Seriously, if Franz Kafka had children in today’s school system – and wouldn’t we all like to know what those kids would have made of themselves? – then The Trial would have been called The School and Josef K. would not have been summoned to an unexplained court date but rather an unexplained teacher-parent conference.
For instance, we went on the website and clicked on the “School Supplies List.” A detailed inventory came up with the instructions, “When you pick up your supply box, double check that each item is included.” There was a box of supplies specifically for kindergarteners, and the cost was listed as $66.32. Hmm, well that would be convenient, but where does one pick this up? So on the first day of class, I stopped a teacher.
“Is there a place where we can buy and pick up a box of supplies?”
“Yes, if you ordered one.”
“Oh, how do I do that?”
“Well, the orders are due by the end of the previous school year.”
When I signed her in on that first day, I was asked to fill out a contact information form. This would turn out to be the first of ten such forms. It asked for my name, my address, my phone number, the usual. Then underneath that, this question: “How will your child be going home?” Well, that seemed an odd question to ask on a contact information form. We had decided that she would ride the bus on some days, but on other days her grandparents would pick her up. So I simply wrote “bus / pick up.”
Two hours later, a teacher calls me. “We’re a little confused,” she said. “Are you picking her up today, or is she riding the bus?”
“Today?” I asked. “I’m picking her up.”
“Oh, we couldn’t tell since you put both ‘bus’ and ‘pick up.’”
When our child got home, she told us we had forgotten to pack her a snack.
“Were we supposed to pack you a snack?” we asked.
"Yes," she said. “But it’s okay that you forgot, the teacher let me have some of her crackers.”
“Forgot,” I grumbled through clenched teeth. “Yes, that’s what happened.”
Every question we asked came with far more complicated answers.
How much does lunch cost? “Well, it’s tough to say, everything is a la carte. But the easiest thing to do is to set up an account online that automatically drafts money to her account.” And how do I do that? “You’ll need to go to the school system website, open an account, and link it to her student ID number.” Okay…
If she is going to ride the bus home, what does she need to do? “If she’s listed as a car rider, she’ll need a written note from you to ride the bus. It should be emailed to the transportation account for the school. But if she doesn’t ride within a ten-day period, she’ll be dropped from the passenger list, and you’ll have to register her again.” Do I do that with the transportation account? “No, you’ll do that with the city bus account.” Of course…
I spent an hour last night just filling out forms – most of them requiring the same basic contact information – and surfing through dozens of layers of the website trying to create and link accounts and find basic information to what felt like frequently asked questions. Now, I’m an intelligent person. I’m an accomplished professional who manages and supervises close to a dozen other professionals. I have two degrees and three professional certifications. If I am having such a hard time navigating the school system, how much harder is it for parents who don’t have the same education? Or don’t have access to the internet? Or don’t speak English? Or don’t have the luxury of taking a day off from work to stand in the hallway on the first day of school asking what feels like stupid questions?
It worries me that a child’s experience in school is so dependent on his or her parents’ ability to navigate the system. I understand that this system is probably in place to protect and ensure each child’s safety, but that school officials would assure me it’s necessary. But no one is trying to make it any easier for us to understand.
I’m doing my best to shield my child from the stress and anxiety it is causing me just to get her into school. I’m having a little more sympathy for the stereotype of the over-involved and anxious PTA parent; it feels like the system lends itself to creating them. So I’m both nervous and jealous – jealous of those parents who’ve already had a child through the system, jealous of all the teachers and administrators for whom this is old news, jealous even of my child whose anxiety about kindergarten newness seems small in comparison to things I worry about for her. The Kafkaesque procedures of getting her enrolled notwithstanding, I so hope for her to have a positive school experience, and any ball that gets dropped feels like a small failure as a parent, even if no one has told me they were going to be throwing those balls at us in the first place.
I suppose that’s just more of the same when it comes to being a parent. Complete responsibility, complete powerlessness. Why should the school system be any easier or different? I don’t always understand why parenting has to be like this, but I’ve learned that it is a constant stream of things to worry over, stress about, pray for, laugh at, and shrug off.
When she got home after her first full day, she chattily told us bits and pieces of the day. “The teacher moved me to blue!” she announced proudly.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
She rolled her eyes at my cluelessness. “Daddy, there’s red, then orange and yellow. Then green, blue, purple, and finally pink.”
“Oh,” I said, my eyes narrowing. “I still don’t understand.”
She sighed with exasperation. “It means I was listening, Daddy.”
“Oh right, of course. Well, good.”